Don't look now, but the south is rising again - the south of Italy that is. Long ignored by fine-wine lovers, the vineyards of southern Italy are undergoing a renaissance. For the past several years, the newest news within Italy has concerned the nation's rediscovery of its ancient native varieties and the application to them of the best of modern technology.
Sicily, Puglia, and especially Campania now crop up in every conversation about the best 'new' wines - and the quotation marks are justified because some of the finest are wines vinified from grape varieties that have been cultivated in the volcanic hills around Naples and Salerno for up to 2500 years. Old and new are two faces of the same coin.
I recently was fortunate enough to have that demonstrated to me by almost back-to-back vertical tastings, the first of one of Campania's most traditional wines, Mastroberardino's Taurasi, and the second of one its newest, Silvia Imparato's Montevetrano. It would be hard to imagine two wines more different in their origins.
Taurasi - Campania's only red DOCG - is vinified entirely from the millennia-old Aglianico variety. Its maker, in this case, is the most historic firm in the region, the Mastroberardino family, which is credited with saving several native grape varieties from extinction. Moreover, the Mastroberardino family is universally admired by Italian enophiles for its devotion to the high quality production of those varieties during the long, lean years when the wine-drinking public was looking elsewhere.
The austere, elegant Aglianico has long been one of the firm's specialties, and many knowledgeable wine lovers think that Mastro's 1968 Taurasi Riserva is the best wine produced in Italy in the last century - period. The current head of the firm, Piero Mastroberardino, is the tenth generation of his family in the business of Neapolitan wine.
Montevetrano, on the other hand, is the recent invention of a highly successful, Bordeaux-loving photographer who, as she puts it, 'wanted to do something for my home region, something to make it possible for young people to make a decent living in the countryside.' With the help of consulting enologist Riccardo Cotarella, she replanted her family acres in the hills east of Salerno with Cabernet, Merlot and - of course -Aglianico, and thereby created Montevetrano, a wine that almost from its first vintage has been winning top honors in Italy.
For all those apparent differences, Montevetrano and Mastro's Taurasi show many surprising similarities. While neither lacks power, they both emphasize elegance over brute force. Both age beautifully because they are both built on a generous structure of soft tannins, intriguing fruit, and abundant, life-giving acidity. And despite some obvious differences in their fruit, they both show a strong gout de terroir, a bracing minerality that is the direct gift of the rich volcanic soils of Campania.
Montevetrano has only been made for ten years and so has nowhere near the impressive track record of Mastro's Taurasi, but the indications are clear that it is just as much a wine for the ages.
Here are the vintages that were tasted:
Riserva DOC 1968 - Still an amazing wine: light and lively on the palate, with great balance. All the classic, dark, almost sexual elements in a fine and graceful package, finishing with lovely, invigorating acidity.
Riserva DOC 1977 - Deep, deep aroma; big, black fruit on the palate, with lots of tobacco and leather underneath. Classic balance: a gorgeous wine with years to go yet; it certainly has not yet peaked.
Riserva DOC 1980 - Piero called this 'a strange vintage.' It was the earthquake year. When the quake struck, the musts in the barrels underwent uncontrolled fermentation for five days. As a consequence, 'the wine is wild.' It has intense, brambly fruit, distantly recalling the very best Zinfandels. A big, muscular wine, quite different from the usually more restrained Mastro style.
DOC 1987 Radici - The family added the name 'Radici' to their Taurasi to indicate their ongoing commitment to their roots (radici). Ironically, this vintage was the most closed of the group. It seems to be in a dumb phase and should probably be left alone for a while.
Riserva DOCG 1997 Radici - Taurasi was awarded the DOCG - the first in Campania - in the mid-nineties. 1997 was a great vintage throughout most of Italy. Piero calls this 'an example of classic Taurasi.' An intense aroma of black fruit and volcanic soil; supple on the palate with a terrific balance of fruit, acid, and tannin; a long, long tobacco finish. Gorgeous to drink now, but nevertheless a wine worthy of long cellaring.
Riserva DOCG 1999 Radici - My note on the aroma reads simply 'Berries!' The wine is still slightly closed on the palate, but it is big, with abundant soft tannins, and well-balanced in the consistent Mastro style. It promises very well for the future.
DOCG 2000 Radici - Like '99, 2000 was a hot growing season, so the wine shows an abundance of fruit, overlaid with chocolate and mineral notes. It's big and soft and already very accessible, with an enjoyable fruit-sweet finish. A fine Taurasi for drinking now and the next several years.
2004 - A beautiful, deep aroma of black fruits; austere and richly tannic on the palate, with flavors of walnuts and plums and cherries. The finish is complex and long. Great promise for long development.
2003 - A very hot vintage, as several recent ones have been; for that reason Signora Imparato is increasing the amount of Aglianico in the blend and decreasing Merlot because its aromatics don't survive the sustained heat. This example is gorgeous, with intense, young, dark fruit and taste and mouth-feel of a top-flight Pauillac. (According to Imparato, French blind-tasters frequently describe her wine as 'a strange Bordeaux.')
2002 - Elegant and deep, but because of the heavy rain during the growing season perhaps the least interesting of the vintages shown. Certainly ready to drink now: big fruit on the palate, and a nice leather-and-tobacco finish.
2001 - Nice peppery, black fruit; quite soft on the palate, very yielding and Pomerol-like. Probably in evolution now and may soon go into eclipse for a while, as most great reds do.
2000 - Slightly restrained but very characteristic nose. On the palate, a little closed, but extremely elegant. Quite concentrated and extracted: an evidently complex wine, reminiscent in style of a fine St. Julien. (Comparisons with one or another Bordeaux are inescapable with Montevetrano.)
1999 - A beautifully maturing wine, marked by the same elegance and depth as its youthful siblings, but with their dominant fruit beginning to evolve into the deeper, more complicated flavors that distinguish great wine from grape juice. It seems to have years of evolution still ahead.
Montevetrano is produced in small quantities, so not too many bottles of the older vintages remain in circulation. The Mastroberardinos have arranged through their importer Wilson Daniels to make older vintages available, and some shops will be able to obtain limited quantities of all of the Mastroberardino vintages reviewed here.
A final note: while both these wines will match harmoniously with special dishes - game, complexly sauced meats, and so on - they don't require them to show well. Montevetrano and Taurasi will happily strut their stuff with simple foods - a decent cheese, a simple pasta al ragu, a broiled steak. Like most fine Italian wines, they are food wines, through and through.
Tom Maresca is a freelance wine journalist based in New York. He specializes in Italian wine.